Ho ho ho....Hobbit? Yes, dwarf lovers, it’s here. Just in time for the movie-going holiday season, we have the first installment of what will be three lengthy episodes in Peter Jackson’s latest effort to bring J.R.R. Tolkien to the masses: a film adaptation of “The Hobbit.”
Part one of the trilogy, “An Unexpected Journey,” opens today.
When theaters darken, and images of Orcs and dragons fill the screen, you’ll almost imagine you hear the delighted chuckling and popcorn-munching of the Inklings – Oxford professor Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, maybe a few others – in the front row.
Because this first step in Bilbo Baggins’ epic journey makes for a very entertaining show.
Although, perhaps one not for children so much as adults. Jackson’s film does not stint on violence or grotesquery, and some graphically rendered battle scenes (a king is beheaded; trolls are petrified; Orcs are maimed) will be far too much for young eyes. That, and a wizard’s porcupine dies.
“The Hobbit” tells the journey of a small group of friends and adventurers – including the reluctant Bilbo – on a quest to reclaim a kingdom and find treasure.
Leaving aside questions of literary purity and faithfulness to the tone and plot of the original work, Jackson’s new take on the beloved 1937 tale ultimately makes for a more entertaining ride than the film version of Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” did a few years ago. (And that comes from someone who wrote a senior college thesis on Lewis and Narnia, and secretly always favors the Narnian landscape.)
There will no doubt be squawking from a few corners, as is always the case with re-creations of treasured books one first read in childhood, about the story of the film, which pulls in material from other writings of Tolkien to supplement the story of Bilbo Baggins’ adventure.
But here is what “The Hobbit” – which we saw in 3-D (more about that later) – has going for it.
First, the performances in the film are uniformly good. Martin Freeman, clad in velvet smoking jackets and quilted bathrobes, carries off the central role of Bilbo, recruited to be the “burglar” of the band, with aplomb, conveying the humble hobbit’s struggle to look worldly and competent while longing fiercely for home and hearth.
“I would have doubted me too,” says Bilbo, at one point, to the dwarves. “I’m a worrier. Not a burglar.”
Thorin Oakenshield is played by Richard Armitage, who has to do a lot of skeptical glances and portentous frowns, but carries them off with style. (Provocative, to consider the differing views of dwarves in Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis, who by some accounts didn’t find “The Hobbit” as enjoyable or successful a book as the “Rings” volumes by his friend and fellow academic, didn’t find dwarves at all trustworthy.)
Cate Blanchett glows as Galadriel; a companion and Tolkien fan at the film called her beauty “angular,” and he wasn’t far off. Tolkien trouper Sir Ian McKellen reprises his role as Gandalf the Grey, conveying more with his blue eyes than most actors do with whole speeches.
“True courage,” he tells Bilbo at one point, his gravelly voice somber, “is knowing not only when to take a life – but when to spare one.”
As for the second big thing the movie has going for it, it is this: It is a detail-packed visual treat for anybody who has ever spent long hours of reading time with dwarves and goblins, witches and elves, trolls and wizards. In Tolkien, in Lewis, in fairy or folk tales.
Take one example: Bilbo’s “Hobbit-hole,” as rendered here, is a feast for the eyes. The oak moldings and wainscoting, the circular passages, the larder well-stuffed with foodstuffs and wines, the round front door (true to the book) – it’s a place some of us will leave the theater wanting to live in, at least a bit longer. Think that’s going too far? Tolkien started his story with an emphasis not only on Bilbo but on his lodgings: “In a hole in the ground,” the book begins, “there lived a hobbit.” The movie’s early scenes, in which Bilbo fries a fish for his supper, in a pre-questing moment of domesticity, are peaceful and satisfying.
A third major asset of the film – and here’s where the method of viewing comes in – is the outdoor scenery. Much of Jackson’s film was shot on location in New Zealand. The gloriousness of the landscape – and take it from someone who has been there, it does really look like that – becomes one of the main reasons to watch the film, especially toward the end.
The camera swoops and glides over the green lushness of rolling landscape, and it strikes the viewer that New Zealand may not have been created to serve as Tolkien’s universe – but it sure can seem that way.
Now about the 3-D viewing. It didn’t seem to me – and a companion, of the brotherly sort – that the 3-D element added very much to the film. Insects and birds flew at and out of the screen, some sparks drifted outward, the scenes of battles and underground caverns used the technology to show scope and depth – but, in the end, the effect was a bit dizzying and we agreed we would have preferred to see the picture in regular format.
The movie – which doesn’t feel at all like its nearly three-hour length – spirals inward to a scene that becomes the core of the story: Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum, deep underground.
The duel of wits between the hobbit and the lithe, pale Gollum (Andy Serkis) becomes the emotional center of the film. They throw riddles at one another, fighting for the upper hand. Serkis makes Gollum a flexible-faced vision of pathos and vulnerability, as well as rage.
When Bilbo leaves with Gollum’s prized ring, we cheer him on – with a twinge of regret.
Just as the film makes free with the pace and linearality of Bilbo’s story, it injects aspects of humor that strike a modern, 21st-century tone.
“Try it – just a mouthful,” wheedles one dwarf to another, trying to convince him to taste a piece of lettuce when nothing else is available at one point on the trip.
“I don’t like green food.”
“Have they got any chips?” another dwarf asks petulantly.
When a group of trolls cook a meal over a spit, one scratches his behind ostentatiously before taking a seat. Another one sneezes into a kettle of food. “Ah, a floater!” the trolls exclaim. “Quite improves the flavor.”
Then the trolls grumble about the taste of their meal:
“Everything tastes the same,” one gripes.
“Everything tastes like chicken,” says another.
The iconic story of a band of 13 dwarves and a hapless hobbit taking on a quest seemingly beyond their capacity is a natural for screen adaptation. (Should Jackson have made these movies before “The Lord of the Rings”? Food for thought. Tolkien did write them that way ‘round.)
Though John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was undoubtedly British, and though his story was of creatures that are other than human, there remains something in “The Hobbit” that is decidedly human – even, truly American.
The idea that men have individual value independently, but that they become something stronger when they stand together. The idea of a mission toward good and away from evil, as best as you are able to tell it in a complicated world.
The notion that leaders can betray, and die, and fail, but that there is glory in everyday folk that can make up for these things.
“Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage,” Gandalf tells Galadriel, explaining why the hobbit is along for the journey.
“I find it is the small things ... that keep evil at bay.”
Seventy-five years after it first appeared, Tolkien’s “Hobbit” still has lessons to teach.
In this film, we can find – entertainingly – a few of them.
the hobbit: an unexpected journey
Starring: Martin Freeman, Sir Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Richard Armitage
Director: Peter Jackson
Running time: 169 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images.
The Lowdown: The first of three new films about the epic journey of hobbit Bilbo Baggins on a quest to reclaim a kingdom.